CIA fears about 1980s Labour 'threat' revealed

Denis Healey
Image caption Denis Healey was accused in the papers of attacking US policies

The Labour Party is "in the hands of urban leftists given to ideological extremes with only fringe appeal".

That isn't an assertion about today's politics. It was the verdict of the US Central Intelligence Agency on Labour back in 1985, in a memo for the agency's director on the early phase of Neil Kinnock's leadership.

This memo is one of millions of the CIA's historical records which have just been made available online. Previously researchers had to actually visit the US National Archives in Maryland in order to access this database of declassified documents.

The records reveal the deep level of concern inside the CIA about the strength of the Left within Labour in the early 1980s, a political force which the agency regarded as anti-American.

Image copyright Martin Rosenbaum

A report written in the run-up to the 1983 general election states that "a Labor majority government would represent the greatest threat to US interests".

The agency was particularly worried by Labour's then policy of opposition to nuclear weapons, which included cancelling plans for the Trident submarine programme.

This report was especially scathing about leading figures on the traditionally pro-nuclear Labour right who had compromised with this stance.

'Anti-American rhetoric'

It said that "most disheartening from the viewpoint of US interests" was the position of the party's deputy leader, Denis Healey.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The CIA documents released contain two references to Jeremy Corbyn - then a backbench Labour MP

It reported that he still had ambitions to lead the party and as a result "he apparently has decided to appease the left by attacking US arms control policy, denouncing Trident, and denying he ever supported the NATO INF [Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces] program".

The report added that the growing power of the Left meant that "even moderates like Healey have been forced to ape anti-American rhetoric".

Entitled "The British Labor Party: Caught between Ideology and Reality", the document is a detailed account of the balance of power between left and right in the party and trade unions, as seen by the CIA.

It also records that leading Labour politicians had told US officials they did not take all of the party's policy programme seriously.

'Unsporting'

The CIA was also concerned by what it saw as Europe's large centre-left and socialist parties (including Labour) being too sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

One 1982 report concluded "We have long contended that Moscow's most effective allies in Western Europe are not the Communist Parties, but self-styled Social Democrats who have betrayed the original tenets of social democracy."

Another newly accessible document is a record of a 1981 meeting between delegations led by the US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Margaret Thatcher, who was on a prime ministerial visit to Washington.

The meeting discussed the controversial American plans for an Enhanced Radiation Weapon (ERW), more commonly known as the "neutron bomb", a weapon which was said to be able to kill very large numbers of people while leaving buildings standing.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary Lord Carrington questioned the "neutron bomb"

Also present at the meeting was Mrs Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, who told the Americans that "it is considered unsporting in Europe for a weapon to kill people only".

The database contains just two references to the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. One noted his support in 1986 for an El Salvadoran trade union federation, Fenastras, which was linked to Marxist guerrillas during the country's civil war, while the Americans backed the military government.

This is just a small immediate selection from millions of pages covering a wide range of American and international issues which reveal the CIA's analyses and preoccupations in the past. Records relating to more recent events have not yet been declassified.

The CIA's decision to make all these documents searchable and accessible followed a legal case brought by MuckRock, a US organisation that promotes access to public records.

  • You can follow Martin Rosenbaum on Twitter as @rosenbaum6

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